For the first time in his three seasons as general manager, Garth Snow parted with a young player he liked when he sent 24-year-old defenseman Chris Campoli to Ottawa as part of a trade for an extra first-round pick recently.
One of the main reasons Snow could risk that move was the presence of rookie defenseman Jack Hillen, who was signed out of Colorado College for the final two games last season.
Hillen arrived with a record as a highly productive offensive defenseman, but it remains to be seen whether he can match Campoli's offensive instincts at the NHL level. For the time being, coach Scott Gordon is using Hillen on the third pairing with Joe Callahan and limiting him to a little more than 13 minutes per game, but now that Campoli is gone, Hillen is all but assured of remaining in the NHL the rest of the season.
Asked if he views the trade as a vote of confidence in his play, Hillen said: "I really have no idea what to make of it. I feel like I've been playing well. He's putting me out in more situations. I'm getting good minutes. If that means he's more confident, I really haven't talked to him about it. But I'm playing with more confidence myself, and that's all I really need to have is confidence in my abilities."
Injuries in training camp created the opportunity for Hillen to begin the season with the Islanders, but after playing six games, he was sent down to AHL Bridgeport, where he remained for the better part of three months. Now, he's back, and in the 11 games since his return, Hillen has a couple of assists and a plus-2 rating.
He's putting defense first now as he tries to learn the ropes of Gordon's aggressive system, which puts a premium on decision-making by the defensemen.
"That was one reason I got sent down in the first place," Hillen said. "I need to shore up that part of my game.
"I think I've done that, but I have to learn when to pick my spots to be offensive without compromising any defensive play ... One bad decision by one player, no matter who it is, can mess up the whole play, the whole system. Decision-making is a big part of it. That's something I think I've gotten better at is making good decisions in this system."
The mental aspect of Hillen's game is a strength that gave Snow the confidence to deal Campoli, who had asked for a trade. This summer, Hillen will be a restricted free agent, but he's not looking to leave.
"I love playing here," Hillen said, "so if they want me back, I'd love to be back."